NEW YORK — Ime Udoka found out during this 58-minute marathon that it’s going to take longer than training camp and four preseason games to break his new team out of old habits.
The Celtics had every chance to win their season-opening game against the rejuvenated Knicks in a packed Madison Square Garden but played with the same maddening inconsistency that plagued Brad Stevens’s crew last season.
The 138-134 double-overtime loss could be viewed as an Instant Classic, considering the Celtics’ stirring run late in regulation, in which they scored 10 points in the final 26.8 seconds, but it still counts as a loss, one that was preventable.
Jaylen Brown was stellar with 46 points despite spending the last two weeks in COVID-19 quarantine. Romeo Langford proved he could be valuable off the bench and Grant Williams hit some key threes in the fourth quarter. Those were the encouraging signs.
But there were still the rag-tag offensive stretches, the lack of coverage that led to easy dunks and constant defensive mistakes, especially against former Celtic Evan Fournier.
Fournier’s brief tenure with the Celtics was plagued by COVID-19 but he showed why the Knicks outbid Boston with a four-year, $78 million contract, scoring 32 points, including 17 in the fourth quarter and two overtimes. The Celtics did get games from Fournier where he would hit a barrage of threes, but they consistently tested him Wednesday and got burned.
Meanwhile, Jayson Tatum attempted a career-high 15 3-pointers and missed a career-high 13 of them. Tatum reverted to his old ways, in one sequence blowing off Brown, who was open down the floor, and settling for a contested layup that he missed.
He tried closing out the first overtime with a contested fadeaway after calling for the ball, despite Brown’s mammoth night, and he air-balled a 15-footer to send it into a second overtime.
Udoka was uncertain what he was going to see from his retooled team. They played hard most of the game, save for a couple of lazy passes and defensive lapses, and he’s going to rely heavily on fourth-year center Robert Williams, who played a career-high 45 minutes after dealing with constant injuries since his rookie season.
Brown’s performance was encouraging, especially since he is only six months removed from wrist surgery. Tatum showed the world he was taking the next step in his ascension with his Olympic performance but Brown had been less of a certainty because of his injury. That is no longer an issue.
But what was disturbing was the mistakes and mental lapses were prevalent throughout the game. The Celtics held double-digit leads in the first and second halves, they had chances to extend that leads only to experience scoring droughts, caused by a lack of ball movement or hero ball.
The Celtics attempted a whopping 57 3-pointers, again convinced they are a better long-range shooting team than they really are.
“Late in the game, I think fatigue took place a little bit in our decision making and the shots that we missed,” Udoka said. “They played hard as well. Execution wise, we let them back in the game twice. You don’t want to give up two double-digit leads but to work our way back from a double-digit lead, the effort was there, no question. Just missed some open shots.”
The Celtics were shorthanded with Al Horford out because of COVID-19 protocol and Josh Richardson a late scratch with migraine headaches. What this loss proved is the Celtics may need Horford more than they expected. Grant Williams couldn’t contain Julius Randle, who finished with a team-high 35 points, and the Knicks attacked the rim when Robert Williams was out of the game or away from the basket.
Grant Williams was a surprise starter considering Udoka said he had pondered using Juancho Hernangomez as the starting power forward, but like last season, he struggled defending bigger players and the Celtics paid for their shortcomings. Horford should change that when he returns.
The encouraging part was despite the Celtics’ plethora of mistakes — such as a missed Dennis Schröder layup and a Brown dunk in the second overtime — they should have beaten a team picked to finish ahead of them in the East. The Knicks had all of their frontline players. It was Kemba Walker’s home debut but the Celtics showed for most of the game they were the better team.
But close doesn’t mean anything in the standings, and last year’s team also lost a litter of close games. This does feel different, however, but it’s also going to take more than one regular-season game to break a lot of bad habits established toward the end of the Stevens era.
“It’s the first game of the season and to be honest, we’ve got so much to improve, to grow and to learn,” Brown said. “I was pleased with how we handled things. The reason I wanted to play is I didn’t want to miss [Udoka’s] opening game. We fell short today. I think he did a really good job tonight, we’ve just got to clean some things up.”